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Berlusconi Claims Fraud in Italian Elections
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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has demanded that the outcome of the April 9-10 vote, which handed his center-left rival Romano Prodi a tiny majority, should be overturned because of "widespread" fraud.


Prodi has said he won the election fairly, but newspapers reported yesterday that Berlusconi might seek a recount of more than 1 million votes.


Uncertainty over the political situation has hurt Italian bonds and depressed the Milan stock market.


And allies of Berlusconi cast doubt over his accusations, with one coalition partner saying a review of the ballot would not change the result.


Looking to calm the tensions, some senior center-right allies said they saw nothing especially untoward about the election, which was the closest in modern Italian history.


"(Vote) checks have always been made, but I don't think they will change the result of this election," said Lorenzo Cesa, head of the centrist Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), one of the four core parties in Berlusconi's coalition.


Ignazio La Russa, a leading figure in the conservative National Alliance party, also distanced himself from accusations of deliberate wrongdoing.


"I have no news of fraud. I have heard of serious irregularities but that isn't a novelty. They happen in every election," La Russa told Radio Popolare, adding, however, that Berlusconi should never be underestimated.


Growing problem


According to Interior Ministry data, the center-left won the election for the lower house of parliament by just 25,000 votes out of 38.1 million ballots cast.


Berlusconi has refused to concede defeat, and earlier this week demanded a review of 43,000 officially disputed ballots not included in the final tally because of alleged errors over the way they were filled out.


On Wednesday, he suggested the problem might be much bigger saying "60,000 statements" of possible irregularities across Italy had to be checked "one by one."


Under Italian law only votes officially registered as disputed can be reviewed immediately after an election, but Berlusconi could issue a decree to widen the scrutiny.


This would have to be approved by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.


'Italian-style Florida'


The increasingly bitter standoff tempted comparisons with the 2000 US presidential election, when victory was handed to George W. Bush following a recount battle in Florida.


"At this point it is difficult not to fear a sort of Italian-style Florida. A long, destabilizing confrontation over the regularity of more than one million votes," Corriere della Sera newspaper wrote.


Center-left leaders have accused Berlusconi of stoking dangerous political tensions.


"Berlusconi, stop poisoning Italy and delegitimising the Italians' vote," Piero Fassino, head of the biggest leftist party, the Democrats of the Left, said late on Wednesday.


No comment on fraud


The Interior Ministry, which oversaw the election, said just over a million votes had not been included in the final tally because they had been left blank or defaced. This was 60 percent fewer than the number of void votes in the 2001 election.


Asked yesterday if he had evidence of vote fraud, Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said: "No comment."


Routine checks on the 43,000 disputed ballots are being carried out by judicial authorities and are expected to be completed by today.


The prime minister said the review he had in mind would take "several days" to complete.


The Milan bourse bluechip index was down 0.4 percent by 1130 GMT while the yield spread, or risk premium, between 10-year Italian and German bonds touched a four-year high as worries of protracted policy paralysis in Italy weighed on its debt.


Even without accusations of fraud, Italy faces at least a month of limbo before a new government can be sworn in because of constitutional delays tied to the forthcoming election of a new president, who has to oversee the transition period.


(China Daily April 14, 2006)

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